Before we left Budapest, Ron had booked a free walking tour with the city of Melbourne, a service they provide through their tourism office. We were scheduled to meet our tour leader at 9:30, so we were up early with plans to have breakfast closer to Federation Square, the initial spot.
The suburban train station is less than a minute from our hotel. The weather looked iffy as we approached the station; it was not just chilly, but downright cold. Neither of us had brought along a jacket, thinking this is summertime. Within ten minutes, we both regretted it, but did not want to miss the train for a quick run back to the hotel to play fetch. Reason told us that this was only early morning chill and the day would warm after an hour or more.
On the platform, there is an intercom box, which by pressing the green button, it will announce the next train to stop at that station and the approximated number of minutes to wait. We had a fifteen minute lag time, but it deposited us right across the street from the tourism office, giving us time for a coffee at the nearby café.
Federation Square directly across from the train station, is for the most part an open area where large crowds can gather comfortably. The two notable buildings are ultra-modern and look like they have been the result of war wreckage. The open area is constructed in reddish-brown sand color bricks of various hues, bringing to mind the Australian outback. Different areas are elevated by steps, giving crowds of people different levels for viewing. In some areas, these desert multi-colored rectangles give the sensation of undulating sand dunes as you leave civilization preparing for the harsh realities of the outback with its unforgiving forces of nature.
Seated in one corner of the Square is a glass house, where the tourism center is located, but first one must go downstairs. The expansive space is well designed for efficiency, yet there is an immediate sense of welcoming at the same time. Once you take a number, you wait for the next available volunteer to call you. Most of the people milling around serving visitors are volunteers, not paid workers. As a number is called, a melodious voice announces “Number 34, please go to counter number 8”. While I was wandering around, deciding if I should buy a sweatshirt or not, Ron had found our tour guide. I only found sweaters that were selling for $160., so the chill seemed more acceptable with every dollar.
Our tour guide’s name was Ernst, but insisted on being called Ernie. He was originally from Germany, but came over as a youth, and has lived in Australia for fifty-six years. Immediately after introductions, Ernst shared that he was seventy-one years old, swears a lot, but will try to hold back if we are offended by it, and that he has a tendency to touch when he speaks. After reassuring him that these were not problems for us, he went on to say that a German woman he toured yesterday, told him off for touching her shoulder.
Ernst gives young-elderly new meaning. He has spring in his step, he is feisty, and continues to contribute to his society. Two woman were supposed to be part of our tour, but they did not show. Their loss, we had Ernst all to ourselves. To try to recall a fraction of what Ernst shared with us starting in Federation Square and continuing for the next four hours, could not do anyone justice. Ernst’s prior vocation before retirement was as a teacher in a vocational college, but he retired at fifty-three years old. His love for talking is apparent, but not abusive. He was continually alert when sensing we had questions and he was sensitive to our needs and interests. Honestly, it was only toward the end of the four hours that I started getting weary and I blame myself for this. Thinking I may have a chance to get some writing in during the day, I had my computer in my side bag. Add to that a thick wallet and a large digital camera and even if the computer is only two pounds, it gets tiring.
A couple of things immediately stick out in my mind about what Ernst had told us that I will share. One Aborigine language uses the word euro for kangaroo, so Ernst has told his relatives in Germany that Australia had Euros for thousands of years before Europe ever thought about it. There were over four hundred different Aborigine tribes throughout Australia, all with different languages and cultures. Prior to the white man, there were no horses or camels to facilitate travel or communication, thus keeping the different tribes independent and separated culturally and linguistically. With hunting Aborigines, the introduction of diseases, and other conquering hero tactics, the Aborigines have almost been decimated. It was only the current Prime Minister who has apologized for their demise; the last one refused to say “Sorry”, but he was a Bush supporting ass, so it figures.
Ernie heard us when we said we were interested in architecture. He took us to see impressive buildings including historic banks and the stock exchange. His thorough knowledge of the city is impressive considering he himself does not live within the city, but commutes in for tours. Every three months, he travels to some other part of the country or to other countries, so he is attuned to a traveler’s needs. By the time we were to say good-bye, we had passed our tour time by thirty minutes. We stopped at a café to fill out his ‘quality assurance’ survey.
Ernie had advised us to visit the State Library to see the dome. We had to check our bags into computerized lockers, but it was worth the effort. I have yet to see a library like this before, even in the States, and I have been to over thirty states. Computers were everywhere with a fifteen minute time limit for use on one side with a line of people waiting. On the other were just as many computers with access to the contents of the library’s collection. In the center of the room, the vaulted ceiling was four stories up ending in a superb dome, which was the main attraction Ernie had in mind. However, it was not the dome that impressed me the most, but the arcade on each floor above the first floor. Each floor had floor to ceiling bookshelves with volumes filling them. These looked to be classic collections or other rare books by the looks of the bindings. Behind each of these balconies were galleries of art work or other exhibitions. The one we spent a couple of hours with was the history of the printed word. They did such a beautiful and comprehensive display, which I could have spent another two hours investigating, but I could feel Ron’s need to move on elsewhere.
We kept verbally promising each other that ‘right after….’ we will return to the hotel and get our coats. It never did get too much warmer. When in the sun, it was fine, but once in th shade or shadows of stores or other buildings, the wind snapped at you with a fierce blow of cold air. As we passed a Starbucks, I did not so much as have a need for a coffee, but rather the hope of Internet. Remembering that in Malaysia, every Starbucks was a provider of free WiFi Internet, I was hoping it was the same here too. Sadly, not! Yes, they did have WiFi, but the staff did not seem to understand the word FREE. They kept insisting all I needed to do was open my web browser and create my own ID and password, yet to do this, you first had to buy time. They did not get it, it was not as free as they were led to believe. Biting the bullet, I bought time. The reason I was reluctant is because, if I have to buy it each place we go, it is not transferable from one place to the other. Use it or lose it. Use too much and be left wanting more. The usual routine of life. Aside from that, considering in Budapest, you can find free WiFi everywhere you turn, it irks me to have to pay for it in major cities in developed first world countries, not to mention airports in cities like Amsterdam.
So breaking our promise again, we went back to the tourism office for more information. Tonight at 9:00, there will be a show on Federation Square where they will uncover the next number in the giant Advent calendar. We found we missed the free rehearsal of the Christmas carolers, but we were in luck to visit the famous Myers Department Store, where they are famous for their extravagant Christmas displays. The line for viewing the windows was over a block long, but well organized with chains giving everyone a fair chance. Once at the first window, no one rushed anyone along, so you could spend as much time gawking, oohing and aahing as you wished. The theme was “How Santa Really Works”, based on a children’s book by the same name. Each of the windows was jammed with a visual moving representations of the book. Although we have not read the book, we are guessing that the thought bubbles above the characters heads in the windows are text from the book also. It took us about forty minutes to get through the line, but another fifteen or more to appreciate all of the intricacies to make this window such a celebrated attraction.
We had heard the store David Jones had “Santa’s Cave” so in line with getting Christmas spirit, we went in search of this cave. Not being into spelunking, we were a bit cautious of what we might find, but like Indiana Jones, we were in search of adventure. There just happens to be a trilogy of David Jones stores within blocks of each other, each only holding one part of the stores’ selections. Naturally, on the third try, we found the one where Santa was hiding out in cave-like splendor. Why Santa would be associated with something as sinister sounding as a cave was beyond my getting answers.
By passing the snickering elves that wisely perceived we were adults without children, coming to investigate the goings on here, we were disappointed to realize that David Jones is no Myer’s Department Store where the spirit of Christmas is concerned. This Scrooge has set up a commercially profitable little business to capitalize on Santa’s good name and reputation. While waiting in line for Santa, mommy and daddy can buy the little ones treats like popcorn, candy bars, or “fairy floss” (cotton candy). After they get the sugar rush, you can buy them a ticket to ride the mini-merry-go-round with the choice of three horses that look like something from Gulliver’s Travels land of the little people.
It was with firm resolve at this point that we were determined to return to the hotel for coats. Ron discovered that the 109 tram ran close to where we laid ourself to sleep last night, so we picked up our coats and were back out again in record time. Earlier we had discovered a Crispy Crème donut shop. I insisted we return for dessert before dinner.
On Federation Square, there is hangs a humongous Advent calendar along the side walls of a building. My guess is that the building is 12 stories, but it could be larger. At 9:00 each night, there is a show where they remove one of the numbers from the calendar. We were there at 9:00 to see the proceedings, but we were not ready for what happened next.
From the top of the building, a clown is dropped like a bungee jumper. With a spotlight on him, he does acrobatics in the air and against the wall. As this is happening, different lights appear behind him shaped like bursting stars or fireworks. This part of the show continues for about ten minutes when the other side of the blue screen and Advent boxes light up. Another clown appears and starts performing also. The difference is that this clown has a movie projected on the blue background giving him scenery to interact with. As the scenery moves, this clown who is suspended stories from the top of the building walks down a street, looks into store windows, climbs a telephone pole or rides a scooter. Finally, he systematically removes the ribbon of the present du jour and then proceeds to take of f the wrapping exposing the next number. After forty-five minutes, the performance is over. Each night the participants are eligible to submit their names into a drawing for a new mobile phone. The winner is announced at the end of the show.
One of the buildings on Federation Square is related to film. Outside of their building, there are three oversized presents. In one of the presents is a television with a scrolling display of the holidays in December and how they are celebrated in different parts of the world. Ernie had told us that Melbourne has the largest Greek population outside of Athens and Chicago. He said that there are over 150 languages spoken in the city and for the most part, have reached racial and ethnic harmony. To further illustrate this point, the large video advertisement in the square has Merry Christmas alternating through a number of different languages with the associated flag from that country.
Finally, but 10:00 pm, we thought we better take the tram to scope out the area to see what the offerings would be for dinner. As we were standing at the tram stop, I noticed a stand in the train station called Lord of the Fries, which caused me to guffaw and mention it to Ron. This little pixie woman of about twenty-two years of life responded with the fact that they offerings were not bad at all, but a little overpriced. After a minute, she started in asking if we were on vacation, et cetera. We headed in two different directions when the tram doors opened, so it was magical to find her by my side when I looked up. She picked up the conversation where we left off as if there we were still conversing when we parted company. When we decided to get off two stops later after seeing a couple of restaurants open, she detrammed along with us all the while giving me restaurant reviews. We stood in the street still discussing the merits of each establishment, but she wisely suggested we step up to the curb. I was still a bit overwhelmed by the fact that she was still by my side. I was not sure if she was waiting for a dinner invite or an invitation to come stay with us. After profusely thanking her for her assistance and sage advise, we parted ways.